This isn’t your grandmother’s Jane Austen. While Kate Hamill’s new stage adaptation is faithful to Austen’s 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility, second-year M.F.A. candidate Lindsay Rae Taylor has delved deeply into her director’s bag of tricks, employing non-traditional narrative techniques to enliven the material, making it more accessible to a 21st-century audience.
Taylor is a student of University of South Carolina theater department chair Robert Richmond, who is known for featuring striking visuals and unexpected re-imaginings of classic material in his productions, but if Richmond is the master, then Taylor is the grasshopper who has learned how to snatch the pebble from his hand.
Taylor’s vision for the production eschews realistic depictions of the ornate drawing rooms and lush gardens one might expect. Instead, in collaboration with scenic designers Nate Terracio and Carly Sober, she has opted for a long, broad swath of fabric at stage right, onto which flowing, cursive script is projected, signifying both the play’s literary ancestry, as well as the constant exchange of letters that propels the storyline. The fabric merges with some three-dimensional renderings of pages, leading down onto the stage floor, which is adorned with pale quadrangles that suggest elegant marble tiles, yet could also be more sheets of paper that have been strewn about.
At a preview performance last week, a few chairs on wheels, trunks that were combined to form sofas, beds and other furniture, and the semblance of window panes were about all that was ever on stage. Often, the actors used their own bodies and a few hand props to create the illusion of everything from blooming bushes surrounded by warbling songbirds, to a bedroom setting as seen from overhead. As the play began, lively classical strings played, establishing the 19th century setting — until one realized this was a clever arrangement of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” by the Vitamin String Quartet, an appropriate thematic choice for a tale of sisters seeking suitable husbands.
One pivotal moment was accentuated by the actors going into slow-motion, while the intensity of another was comically accompanied by ominous and overly dramatic chords of Edvard Grieg music. A mesmerizing dandy (played hilarious by Donavon St. Andre) moved in stylized fashion, as his comrades struck vogue-style poses to punctuate his lines. Final bows, following long-awaited happy marriages for the heroines, were set to Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” with the actors boogieing down a Soul Train-style line in pairs, while one caddish character was forced to take his bow alone. And yet I’m sure that 95 percent or more of the play’s dialogue was taken straight out of Austen.
One might think it was hard to root for heroines whose principal struggle was the search for rich husbands to support them after their late father’s fortune passed to a half-brother (William Hollerung). Yet that was the societal norm of the era, and most of the male characters were similarly constricted by relatives — often powerful females — who forbade them to seek careers or to marry for love.
Potential suitors included awkward Edward (a sympathetic Kaleb Edward Edley), earnest but older Col. Brandon (Darrell Johnston), and complex Willoughby (John Romanski). Romanski skillfully walked a tightrope of conflicting emotions and motivations, and his final speech was surprisingly moving. Allie Anderson and Kate Chalfant amusingly fleshed out supporting roles as mean girls, while Liv Matthews as adolescent Margaret had the irrepressible enthusiasm of a golden retriever, just as she did in Taylor’s production of Top Girls last fall. I suspect a college sophomore may not be wild about playing little girls, but the petite Matthews was again quite proficient and believable. Riley Lucas got plenty of laughs as the flamboyant Mrs. Jennings, playing the role as an homage to great “dames” of British comedy and pantomime.
Ultimately, this is the story of the Dashwood sisters, however, with Libby Hawkins as the elder Elinor, who embodies “sense” and rationality, and Kimberly Braun as impetuous Marianne, who embraces “sensibility,” emotion and passion. Braun and Hawkins demonstrated the same chemistry as sisters that was a highlight of Top Girls, and Hawkins was especially effective at delivering emotion-laden lines while standing perfectly still.
Costumes from visiting artist Mariah Hale enhanced the material. The male actors were all different physical types, and were clad in posh earth tones and grays. The ladies, however, were similar in age, size and height, and Hale clothed each in a different pastel shade, such as lavender or periwinkle blue, making it easier in early scenes to understand who was related to whom, and in what way.
Hamill’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility was an instant hit when it premiered in 2014, leading to her becoming one of the nation’s 20 most-produced playwrights by 2017. Yet for me, it was Taylor’s bold creativity as director that made this production a treat.
What: Sense and Sensibility
Where: Drayton Hall Theatre, 1214 College St.
When: Through April 21
Price: $22 ($20 USC faculty/staff, military and seniors; $15 students)
More: 803-777-2551, sc.edu/theatre